Olivier Mosset

By lucky happenstance this retrospective of Olivier Mosser’s work from 1965 to 1985 coincided with a group show at the Centre d’art contemporain, Geneva, in which Mosset presented some of his most recent paintings. These latest works indicate a shift away from the flat monochromatic painting that Mosser has practiced rigorously since 1977, the year of his move from Paris to New York, and toward a more painterly abstraction. If we look at Masset’s work as a whole, this most recent development can be seen less as a continuation of his previous painting than as a new interest in a new motif. Yet in this work, too, Mosser is striving for an image that insists on its exclusive identity as painting, which entails confronting the definition of art as the conscious use of skill and creative imagination by reducing painting to its essential prerequisites. Mosser’s work is in this sense an example of conceptual art, which constantly poses questions about the necessity of the discrete object as the site of the idea.

Among the earliest works in the retrospective were four small rectangular canvases from 1962–65. Each presents a black A or a black dot on a white ground, or, more precisely, an A-shaped construction or a disc shape; for in calling these figures “A” or “dot” we fall captive to the convention of seeing the image as a representation. Mosset is playing here with an abstract construct whose nonobjectivity is beyond question, but whose semiotic meaning slyly suggests a possible reality of the motif beyond the image qua image. After these ambiguous early experiments Mosset began to search for an image that would preclude all speculation about an objective component and would thus center attention exclusively on the image as painting. The results of this search were over 200 paintings, completed between 1966 and 1971, each consisting of an identical black ring with an arc width of 2 5/8 inches placed at the center of a square white picture plane. Mosset thereby achieved a deliberate neutrality that points to the self-evident quality of the individual painting, and that alone; paradoxically, the discreteness of each painting is heightened through the persistent reiteration of the motif.

It was with these “circle paintings” that Mosser introduced himself to the public in Paris at the end of the ’60s as a member of the radical artists’ group BMPT, an acronym for (Daniel) Buren, Mosset, (Michel) Parmentier, and (Niele) Toroni. This association was to prove somewhat problematic in light of Mosser’s real concern, for the circle paintings were in danger of being misconstrued as a logo, and painting as an esthetic representation. Mosset resolved this dilemma by borrowing the stripe pattern used by his colleague Buren, not in the sense of merely copying it but as an object lesson. Mosser’s fascination with the sensual fluctuations between figure and ground led to more qualitative gradations of color, until the “stripe paintings” approached monochrome, as one color all but merged into another. Yet I believe that Mosser did not arrive at painting in monochrome by following a logical progression or by becoming more consistently reductionist, but, rather, that he consciously chose this as an absolutely unequivocal motif that would make it possible for him to paint the rejection of imagery as image. It has allowed him to evoke in ever new ways that plane of color on the surface of the canvas that we habitually call the “picture.” In short, Mosser’s paintings, even when they depict nothing, do not in their emptiness mean or suggest nothingness but rather always and only suggest painting itself.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.